Meet the dinner party anti-terror squad

After a series of arrests in their town, the people of High Wycombe have a new weapon in the battle against Britain's cultural divide
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The Independent Online

With a roomful of guests chatting animatedly, ripples of occasional laughter and the sound of clinking glasses, this could be just another weekend dinner party.

But the 10 or so people gathered in Anthea Hickman's sitting room in High Wycombe had loftier ambitions than merely to eat, drink and be merry. Against the backdrop of the terror trial that has cut into the heart of the Buckinghamshire town, their get-together represented a grassroots effort to heal the racial divide that slices through their community.

The gathering was part of a series of dinner parties to bring together complete strangers from both the majority white British and the minority Asian communities. "It's shocking, but we don't really have any friends in the Asian community," said Jade Blades, 36, one of the guests at Mrs Hickman's dinner. Shakeela Khan, 30, sitting next to her, agreed. "I only know white English people through work, and we don't socialise," she said.

The dinner party idea – called Dine at Mine – was the brainchild of Abid Hussain, who works in computers, and civil servant Rebecca Hickman, Anthea's daughter. The two met in the aftermath of a number of arrests that took place in High Wycombe in 2006 – the result of those arrests is the current trial at Woolwich Crown Court in London, where eight men are accused of conspiring to blow up planes en route to the US and Canada.

"People here were shocked by the arrests, and one of the events organised to try to encourage the two communities to come together was an open day at the mosque," says Rebecca Hickman, 34. "That day I met Abid, and we started talking about what else we could do to bring people together. Something just had to happen at the grassroots – what's the point of a government initiative unless real people meet up and talk? And that means moving out of our comfort zones and starting to get to know one another."

The first dinner party included Ms Hickman, Mr Hussain and his wife Khudija. "Within an hour or so I'd realised not only how little I knew about Islam, but also how much we all had in common," says Ms Hickman. "With Khudija, all I saw at first was the hijab, but a couple of hours later I wasn't seeing it at all, I was just seeing another woman. And I'm embarrassed by how little I knew about their faith."

For the Hussains, there were similar revelations. "I knew nothing about Christian denominations," says Mr Hussain, 34. "But for Muslims the benefit of getting together isn't just about what you learn about Christianity, it's about reaching outside your own community. A lot of Muslims just keep their heads down; they don't mix beyond the people they know."

Ms Hickman and the Hussains decided that if they got others together over dinner, they would encourage more understanding between the communities. "People are intimidated by meetings and committees – getting together over food is more informal and it gives people the chance to ask the questions they've always wanted to ask," Ms Hickman says.

They printed fliers, put up posters around the town and recruited some to host dinners and others to go along as guests. The parties on Friday night included an all-female gathering, a get-together for over-40s and a dinner for 20-somethings. All dinners were alcohol-free, in deference to Muslim tradition.

For many guests, it's the first time they've set foot in a house on the other side of the community divide. "I'd never been inside a Muslim house in my life," says Sarah Priestley, 30, a shop assistant. "I thought it would have an ethnic feel with maybe lots of tapestries. But in fact it turned out to be modern, just like my house."

At another dinner, 18-year-old Sanam Akhtar enjoyed the chance to speak to women from the white British community. "Even at school the Asians hang around with the Asians and the white girls hang around with the other white girls," she says.

Critics of the scheme doubt its ability to have any lasting effect, but Ms Hickman and Mr Hussain believe otherwise. "It's growing," he says. "We're up from about 30 people involved in the first round of dinner parties to about 70 this time round." Ms Hickman's mother Anthea, who hosted one of this weekend's dinners, says: "After the last dinner I bumped into some of the Asian guests around town and chatted with them. I'd never have done that in the past."

Jade Blades and Shakeela Khan, who met on Friday night at Mrs Hickman's house, are planning to meet up with their children in the park. "It might seem a bit aspirational to be thinking a few dinner parties can change the world, but it's got to start somewhere," says Richard Hoyle, 50, another guest of the Hickmans. "Anything that's breaking down barriers has got to make a bit of a difference."